10 May 2012

Keeping Our Domestic Workers Safe @ Home (家务安全 你我有责)

10 May 2012

It is always sad when we receive updates of serious accidents and deaths. As I read the details sent from my colleagues, a common refrain that echoes in my mind is “this was totally preventable”. Whether local or foreign, a life is a life. It matters. And all of us should do as much as we can to prevent these incidents from happening.

There had been a spate of deaths from height early this year and when I heard about Suliyah’s death from a fall on 27th April – my heart sank again. Another unnecessary death. So far this year, we have seen a total of 11 Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) falls from height, 8 of which were fatal. The majority of those who died lost their lives cleaning windows, while the rest fell while hanging laundry or hanging curtains.

These accidents were all preventable. Employers must take responsibility and not task their FDWs to do things which are dangerous and which they would not do it themselves. Both FDWs and FDW employers must take safe work practices seriously.

Many have voiced concern, with some, including an NGO, calling for a complete ban on cleaning the exterior of windows. Others, including other NGOs, have argued otherwise - that we should also not swing to the other extreme of banning a domestic chore whenever there is an injury or fatality.

So what can we do as a community, as employers, as fellow human beings, to prevent more lives from being lost? Many feel that educating FDWs and FDW employers about cleaning windows safely is still perhaps the most effective way in preventing falls coupled with stiffer penalties on errant employers.  It really boils down to a combination of education, enforcement and greater deterrence, as well as both employers and FDWs taking ownership and action to ensure safety at home.


We have put in a lot of effort to educate and train FDWs and FDW employers over the years. From 2000 to 2004, there were a total of 43 fatalities. In the last five years from 2007 to 2011, this number dropped to 24 in spite of an increase in FDWs of 14%. Everyone who loses his or her life, or gets seriously injured, leaves behind a family and loved ones. We should press on in this direction. We put all first-time FDWs through a Safety Awareness Course. During the course, we teach FDWs how to perform their household chores safely, especially while cleaning windows and hanging laundry. We also demonstrate safe ways to complete these tasks. To ensure they remember these safety rules, we give the FDWs educational materials and pamphlets that are printed in their native languages and in English. (See picture below for an extract of the Safety Pamphlet). We have gone further to enhance the work safety portion of the new Settling-in Programme (SIP), which started this month. FDWs now spend more time not only learning but also practising how to perform chores safely. The trainers will observe each FDW’s ability to practise what was taught and these observations will be shared with the FDWs’ employment agents, who will help to convey the observations to the FDWs’ employers. Some NGOs have also recognized that part of the solution to prevent the falls and injuries is to really “do more of the same”– to enhance education, protection as well as deterrence, while acknowledging the overall FDW death rate has gone down over the years.1

The Manpower Ministry will continue to work with training providers, agencies, NGOs and employers to see what more we can do to educate FDWs on workplace safety, especially while working from height.

Cleaning windows - Do and Do Not
FDW Safety: Extract of Safety Pamphlet given to new FDWs during SIP

Enforcement & Deterrence:

The “stick” approach is also needed. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations today, employers of FDWs are required to provide safe working conditions and take the necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of the FDW. Employers who breach these conditions can be fined up to $5,000 and/ or jailed up to six months.

Between 2007 and 2011, 9 employers were convicted and fined up to $5,000, and were permanently barred from hiring FDWs. Just last week (3 May 2012), a 46-year-old Singaporean FDW employer, Gan Hui Leung (颜惠鸾), was charged in court for failing to stop her FDW from dangerous work practices, hence contributing to her death. Gan was convicted and given the maximum fine of $5,000. Investigations for the eight cases of FDW fatal falls this year are currently on-going.

If necessary, we will do more to ensure the deterrence message gets across to all employers. We are reviewing whether the current penalties are adequate to ensure deterrence.


We need to act to prevent further lives from being lost. It is not just Government, but employers and FDWs themselves who can and must do more.

So what can all of us in the community do? First, you can start by downloading the app – which will, as its name suggests, allow users to snap photos of unsafe work conditions on their smartphones and submit them wirelessly to MOM. This will then alert MOM to look into the matter and take action where necessary.

Second, we have to ask ourselves - would we clean our own window exteriors? If so, how we would clean our own windows? How would we ensure our lives are not put at risk? How can we be sure our FDWs understand this, and also do the same?

So what are the solutions?

Should we simply ban the cleaning of window exteriors? It is an option but I am not sure if it is too blunt an instrument. Can we trust employers to do the right thing or will there always be the irresponsible amongst us? Or should we put in place tighter guidelines for FDWs and employers when cleaning window exteriors – such as ensuring employers or adults in the household are present to supervise such cleaning? How prescriptive should we be in our safety guidelines? Should we mandate the type of window design and cleaning equipment permitted? Other than tackling the safe cleaning of exterior of windows, what more can we do to ensure safety of FDWs when they are hanging laundry using bamboo poles?

We are considering the above questions and more, bearing in mind the various implications if we were to introduce tighter requirements for tasks that put FDWs at risk of falling from height. We welcome your views and feedback on this issue as well – especially from employers, FDWs, NGOs and employment agents. Please drop us an email at to give your suggestions.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility

This brings me to my next point – that safety is everyone’s responsibility. FDWs are not the only ones at risk of being injured in a household setting. Everyone – including you and me – should practise proper safety when doing everyday household chores, even when using a ladder to change a light bulb or to retrieve items stored on the top shelf of your storeroom. For example – when I am up on the ladder changing a light bulb, my wife holds the ladder down. So what more for exterior window cleaning? Employers or an adult member of the household must be present as well. Every household chore bears risks – some more than others – and we must recognise this and develop a safety mindset. 

My final appeal is for FDW employers to ensure the safety of your FDW as you would ensure yours or any of your family members. After all, FDWs are also mothers, sisters and daughters with families back home. Especially with Mother’s Day this Sunday, let’s bear this in mind.

Let’s work on this together to prevent further accidents and fatalities.

Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin

1 John Gee, Immediate Past President, TWC2, ST Commentary (25 Apr)
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